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Sunday, January 28, 2007

How to Read a Photographic Book

I fell into a habit many years ago that I think has served me especially well. Like the importance of a print-viewing area where you can comfortably display workprints to look at in a leisurely fashion, it's one of those major secrets that hides in plain sight—something many people might do as a matter of course but very few actually do.

What is it? Simply a method of paying attention to books of photographs. A quality and a level of attention similar to what you might devote to reading a printed book of text.

What problem does it solve? A big one, actually. It's called "closure." Closure is what happens when you're having a conversation with another person and you decide you understand what they're saying, so you stop listening and start thinking about what you're going to say. More generally, closure is what happens when you think you understand something well enough, and don't think you need to understand it any better—so you stop trying. You close down.

Unfortunately, photographs are among the things we reach closure on the fastest of anything. We primates are visually-dominant in terms of the sense we favor, and these days we're utterly bombarded with images—on some television commercials (adverts, for your Brits), the bombardment can come at the rate of five per second. Advertising photographs, which are often designed to be slick but simplistic—the better to be immediately appealing—are designed to be "gotten" quickly and easily. And of course many images don't deserve extended attention. All of this conspires to encourage our habits of early, often instant, closure. Like it or not, we can hardly help approaching pictures that way: scanning, appraising, closing down, moving on. We spend all day dismissing things.

Here's how I reverse that. When you get a monograph (a book primarily of plates—i.e., of pictures) that you want to "read"—that you really want to digest—first, page through it as you normally might. On that run-through, note where the bits to read are located. Then read whatever those things are—the essay, a preface, an afterward, whatever.

Then wait.

Wait a few hours until that evening, or wait a day or two. Set aside some time. Make sure you're feeling relaxed, rested, and that you're in a comfortable chair, in a place with decent lighting. Try to see that you won't be disturbed. Put music on if you want to, or not if you don't. And get an egg timer.


Right, an egg timer. Something that counts off three minutes. (Preferably one that doesn't make any distracting noise, although a low reminder at the end of the three minutes might help.) Five minutes works too. What you do is to use the egg timer to help you spend time looking at each picture (or "spread" of two pages). During that time, let your eyes stay on the picture. Your mind can wander if you want, but keep looking at the picture. After the time is up, turn the page.

Keep at this just as you'd read a novel—for as long as you want to, or until you get tired of it. If you haven't "finished" the book, mark your place and come back to it later, and resume where you left off. After you've "read" a book like this, try coming back to it later, after a few days or a week or two, and either page through it again slowly or "read" it again.

While you're "reading" the book, don't think you need to be formulating language about it, or thinking large, "front-brain" thoughts. The eye and the brain are constantly working together to dismiss images—glancing, gathering in the gist, registering the information, appraising, moving on. Just keep your eyes on the pictures. Let your mind go wherever it wants to. Looking is enough.

And look at all the pictures. Don't be judgmental. Part of what the exercise does is to relieve you of your appraising, judgmental mode of approach—gets you over the idea of "I like this one, I'll linger here—nope, don't care for this, move on, move on!" If the photographer liked the picture well enough to put it in her book, maybe you should just take it in like all the rest of them.

If you'll just try this with one or two books, I think you'll be surprised how well it works. All it does it to enforce a different "pace" with images than the one you're used to all day every day. It just slows you down and lets you notice more. I find it helps me to "get" what photographers are up to in their work.

I'll bet it can open your eyes, too.



Blogger MHV said...

Excellent observation, I have found that stopping down and trying to figure out what's in a photo is suprisingly rewarding. We're used to browse through photos and look only for an "Ah!" reaction or not. The first time I really paid attention to pictures of any kind was when reading my Dover edition of Hogarth's prints. I was interested in his "Progress" series, and a very useful commentary detailed item by item how the pictures work, and how they build up to a story. Observing classical painters is an excellent exercise in picture-decoding acquisition. These people worked hard to construct pictures, and nothing was left to chance.

I kept the same frame of mind when reading Walker Evans's Polaroid series book and William Eggleston's Guide. I find these photographs, especially because they reuse the snapshot aesthetic, demand a sustained attention. Browsing through them just yields a superficial feeling of emptiness, like looking at a stack of bad snapshots.

No wonder it took time for them to be recognized as more than mere throwaways. Evans's polaroids in particular are fascinating for all the work put in composition. If you don't get composition, you don't get these pictures. And you don't get composition without stopping down and observing patiently.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Adam McAnaney said...

Mike: Excellent post.

mhv: I'm a big fan of pictures that are often referred to as having the snapshot aesthetic. Your post inspired me to do a quick search on Google that turned up the following site: An amazingly generous website (it has samples from all of Eggleston's works) and a great idea for how to honor his work and make it accessible. I now have a few more books on my to-buy list...


5:58 PM  
Blogger Scott Jones said...

This is very interesting. You really have described Buddhist style meditation with the "picture" as the object of attention rather than, say, the breath which is usually used. I am off to try this right now...

11:35 PM  
Blogger Robin P said...

Nice idea Mike, explains why I prefer the kind of book layout where there is a lot of text to read next to each photo.
You've made me feel quite guilty about the short length of time I spent at the Michael Kenna exhibition, will now have to return to Banbury with an egg timer!

Cheers, Robin

2:49 AM  
Blogger Alan Rew said...


Thought-provoking post. This strikes me as a useful technique to improve how much I 'see' in a photographic location. Often I've found, when reviewing my own photos, that there are interesting parts of a scene that I missed because I didn't spend long enough letting the scene 'soak in'. I've moved on too soon.

So maybe using a timer to force myself to look at a location for a fixed time period could improve my 'seeing'.



6:57 AM  
Blogger Player said...

One of my perpetual frustrations with photography, as an art form, is that people, when showing them pictures, seem to look at them quickly and move on to the next one. Photographs, for reasons you mentioned, seem to be thought of as common and cheap as dirt. And I'm guilty of giving photos short attention at times, and I should know better.

I've often wondered why exactly this is the case. Maybe it's because a photograph is not entirely the artist's creation in that the elements of a picture are recorded rather than created, unlike a painting for example, so it may be more difficult to see its value as a work of art.

It is possible to see various meanings in a photograph, but since the stuff of the photograph was recorded rather than created, it's hard to attribute these meanings to the photographer's vision. If a painter has a certain element in his picture, you know the artist put it there, and it's probably there for a good reason, and there's meaning to it.

Photography is an art form, no doubt about it, but the millions of pictures recorded every year seems to obscure the photographs that are worth spending extra time with. And the "recorded" versus "created" reality is difficult to overcome. I don't know.

7:59 AM  
Blogger David Huntley said...

Hmmm, Very interesting idea. I'll giver a go!

9:51 AM  
Blogger jim witkowski said...

Thanks Mike.

I’ve collected a fair amount of photo essay books from photographers I admire and wanted to learn from. Try as I might, I never had a discipline that would pace me through the book.

I’ll give it a try.

For what it’s worth, it may be a useful tool for browsing photographer’s web sites as well.


9:53 AM  
Blogger Ernest Theisen said...

This is such a good idea. In a way it is like using a view camera. You stand in front of the scene setting up, that takes a while. In the process you may see things in the scene that you didn’t see before, things you like, things you don’t like. It is this whole idea of slowing down to see and think. Thanks, E

10:06 AM  

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